Wat Pho, the temple of the Reclining Buddha, lies just south of the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The enormous gold leaf-covered figure of the reclining Buddha is inside a long and narrow temple which barely gives you a good view of the statue. The best I could do was to take a photo of a small statue of the reclining Buddha placed in front of the main statue. This is what you see in the featured photo. I hope it gives you a sense of the iconography, as well as the scale.
The pavilion itself is breathtakingly beautiful. Far away, above the foot of the Buddha, I saw the paintings whose photos you can see in the panel above. They are immensely decorative, but the birds are very realistic. My limited experience with Thai paintings is that this is typical. There is no attempt at a realistic totality. Each element is completely realistic, but the sizes and their positioning are determined only by the aesthetics of the painting. The screen that you see in the photograph on the right is another example. The birds and the butterflies are each done with attention to detail, and rendered realistically. However, they are elements in a pattern, so their sizes bear no relation to the real sizes of the models. The result is that your eyes are overwhelmed with the decorativeness of the pavilion as you walk through it.
The temple complex was not large, but there were statues everywhere. The central courtyard had a fountain surrounded by human statues. This area was very crowded with tourists. After a futile attempt to take photos of the fountain with no tourists in the frame, The Family wanted to move deeper into complex. We found a quieter spot inside with a little garden with a stone tiger, whose photo you see above.
It was a clear and very hot day. I sat down in the shade of a verandah, and drank a lot of water. Wat Pho is not just another temple. Apparently the monks who lived here developed a system of healing and medicine which included the art of massage which the rest of the world now associates with Thailand. I’d been looking forward to a massage here. The garden I was looking at while I rested in the shade probably contained some of the herbs used in the Wat Pho style of massage. But it was too hot; I was wilting, and a massage no longer seemed like such a great idea.
There were lightbulbs being strung up along the garden. The evening would have the full moon of November, the supermoon. It was the festival of Loy Krathong. Perhaps the lights were for that. The lightbulbs acted as lenses, and I could get a distorted picture of the golden spire of Wat Pho through it. That’s the picture you see above.
The Manuha temple is one of the earliest in Bagan. Tradition says that it was built at the behest of Manuha, a king taken captive by the founder of the Bagan kingdom, Anawrahta. The most memorable thing about this boxy-looking temple is how cramped all four Buddha images are. There is space for just about one person to move in front of the images.
There are three images of the seated Buddha facing the entrance. For some reason we walked to the back first and saw the image of the reclining Buddha shown in the featured photo. The perspective makes it look enormous. Near the foot of the statue is a flight of stairs which takes you up to a point where you are supposed to get a good view of the face. On this day, having come across so many broken stairs, we were not inclined to climb.
We walked to the front to see the other images. These look even more imposing: you stand right at the feet of the Buddha, with no space even to throw your head back. The story is that the architecture is designed like the prison the captive king found himself in. The temple is so closely associated with captivity in the Burmese mind, that the first thing which Aung San Suu Kyi did after her release was to come here to pray.
It is easy to miss two small but well-dressed statues in a little alcove off to the side. These are images of king Manuha and his wife, queen Ningaladevi. Manuha was the king of the Mon kingdom Thaton. It is said that he was captured because he refused to give Anawrahta a copy of the Tripitaka, a book of Buddhist teaching. His defeat and capture brought to Bagan many Mon crafsmen and artisans and was important in the development of the Bagan style of architecture. It is likely that the temple structure is small because the captive king had no money to pay for a grander structure.
Several of Yangon’s prominent temples were made during the years of the military regime. They are not very popular with the locals. When we visited the Chauk Htat Gyi temple it was immediately obvious why. The place looked like a huge hangar, and the enormous, 66 meters long, statue of the reclining Buddha entirely lacked aesthetic sense. The only interesting photo I could think of was to take a reflection of the hangar in the glass eye of the Buddha, as you can see here. Annoyingly, from the photos displayed in the temple, it seems that an older image was demolished because it looked too aggressive, and the new one put in its place. Maybe the new one looks better, but it is more impressive than beautiful.
Since the place is cool, people like to hang out. I found it more interesting to do some people watching. There were lovers together, a schoolgirl with her books, an old man at prayer, and a reclining man. Then there was a little vend being minded by an old lady with a younger woman at her side, perhaps her daughter. When I took their photo the younger one smiled and the old lady looked very suspicious. She was probably not very fond of foreigners, because she said something funny about me and burst into peals of laughter. It must not have been nice, because the younger woman refused to meet her eye. This byplay gave me a couple of wonderful photos.
The reclining Buddha is an image of the death of Gautama, the Buddha. In Buddhism this is a happy occasion because the Buddha is then freed from the cycle of life and enters a state of nirvana. The scene is sometimes called the Mahaparinirvana.